Expert: How young people like Elizabeth Thomas fall prey to predators – The Tennessean


The search for a missing 15-year-old Tennessee girl ended Thursday after she was located in northern California, authorities said.
Ayrika Whitney/USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee

VIDEOS: THE SEARCH FOR ELIZABETH THOMAS AND TAD CUMMINSGriffin Barry recounts encounter with Tad Cummins | 2:30

Griffin Barry, 29, describes his encounter with missing teen Elizabeth Thomas and the suspect in her disappearance, Tad Cummins. Barry said the duo asked to stay on the property he takes care of in the remote Siskiyou County hamlet of Cecilville.
Greg Barnette

VIDEOS: THE SEARCH FOR ELIZABETH THOMAS AND TAD CUMMINSElizabeth Thomas is “apparently healthy and unharmed” | 1:12

Law enforcement officials hold a press conference following the arrest of Tad Cummins, who disappeared with 15-year-old Elizabeth Thomas in March.
Ayrika Whitney / The Tennessean

VIDEOS: THE SEARCH FOR ELIZABETH THOMAS AND TAD CUMMINSColumbia happy Elizabeth Thomas is safe | 0:00

With news the Elizabeth Thomas was found safe and Tad Cummins is in custody, the city of Columbia, Tennessee is celebrating.
Shelley Mays/The USA TODAY NETWORK–Tennessee

VIDEOS: THE SEARCH FOR ELIZABETH THOMAS AND TAD CUMMINSFBI on Elizabeth Thomas: “We are going to pursue justice in this case” | 1:01

Nashville-based FBI agent Matt Espenshade talks at a press conference at TBI headquarters about the arrest of Tad Cummins, the former high school teacher who abducted 15-year-old former student Elizabeth Thomas.
Ayrika Whitney / The Tennessean

VIDEOS: THE SEARCH FOR ELIZABETH THOMAS AND TAD CUMMINSTad Cummins could face federal charges | 1:05

Acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee discusses possible charges that Tad Cummins could face in the abduction of 15-year-old Tennessee girl Elizabeth Thomas during a press conference at TBI headquarters.
Ayrika Whitney / The Tennessean

VIDEOS: THE SEARCH FOR ELIZABETH THOMAS AND TAD CUMMINSElizabeth Thomas’ family attorney speaks in Columbia, Tennessee | 17:07

The attorney for the family of Missing Tennessee teenager Elizabeth Thomas addressed the media hours after she was found safe in California with Tad Cummins
Melanie Balakit/The USA TODAY NETWORK–Tennessee

Federal officials transported Tad Cummins to Sacramento on Friday, a day after authorities found the 50-year-old ex-teacher and 15-year-old Elizabeth Thomas in a remote cabin in northern California.

Cummins, accused of kidnapping Elizabeth, faces a federal charge of knowingly transporting a minor in interstate commerce with the intent to engage in sexual activity. Elizabeth was on her way to Tennessee Friday, having spent Thursday with law enforcement.

Neither Elizabeth or Cummins have spoken publicly since they were found Thursday.

Law enforcement have not released any evidence to indicate Cummins physically dragged Elizabeth away from her Columbia, Tenn. home or restrained her during the 39 days police believe Cummins spent with Elizabeth.

But that doesn’t mean the teacher didn’t prey on his student, said longtime psychologist Dr. Rebecca Bailey.

“You have a very vulnerable young lady who perhaps did not have adequate coping skills who was taken advantage of by a predator,” said Bailey, a psychologist in California since 1991 and consultant for the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children.

‘We need to look at the grooming’

All cases of sexual exploitation and kidnapping are different. But there is one commonality: they tend to have a person who uses a coercive factor to force or lure away a child, Bailey said.

When someone breaks into a home and takes a child (which is exceedingly rare, according to the center) that person relies on fears and threat. In a case where an adult authority figure runs away with a student, Bailey says there is typically a grooming that occurs.

“Grooming is often a slow and steady coercive process. The message that, ‘I am the only one that can understand you, emotions are here, come be with me and I’ll save you from the terrible, ugly world’,” Bailey explained.

“Typically the victim of a kidnapping does not fall in love with a perpetrator. They adapt to the circumstances to survive. To those who say, ‘Look she was in love and went willingly,’ we need to look at the grooming process.”

Elizabeth attended Bible study with Cummins and his wife, records show. When Cummins was initially confronted about possible inappropriate contact, FBI documents state he denied any wrongdoing but described himself as a father figure to Elizabeth.


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Elizabeth also had some issues at home. Maury County court records show her mother was arrested in 2016 for allegedly abusing Elizabeth and four of her siblings. Bailey says these kind of issues create an opportunity for a vulnerable child to become a victim.

“The problem is, when you have relationships with older guys like this … the element of choice for the youngster just isn’t there,” Bailey said, noting a person’s brain doesn’t fully develop until they are in their 20s.

“Their (lack of) critical thinking increases their capacity to be exploited.”

Coming back from outer space

Bailey has worked with many young women who were taken advantage of by a coach or other authority figure. Based on those cases, she expects Elizabeth may be confused and have conflicting emotions. Authorities in California say the FBI spoke with Elizabeth Thursday. They plan to reunite her with her family in Tennessee Friday.

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There is a healing process that needs to take place now, both with professional counseling and familial understanding, Bailey said. She likened what Elizabeth is going through to coming back into the Earth’s atmosphere from outer space.

“The impact long term is the issue too,” Bailey said, saying Elizabeth may have some challenges in the future with friendships and other aspects of trying to engage in a relatively normal life.

“She deserves compassion, 100 percent compassion.”

Elizabeth’s father and siblings said Thursday they are excited to speak with her and have promised to  provide her whatever care is necessary to help her recover.

Reach Dave Boucher at [email protected], 615-259-8892 and on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1

Read more about the Amber Alert case:

Tad Cummins arrested, Elizabeth Thomas found safe in northern California

Tad Cummins threatened teen with ‘repercussions’ before kidnapping, court papers say

Elizabeth Thomas’ dad pleads for her return at Columbia tree planting

TBI: Tad Cummins searched ‘teen marriage’ on internet before kidnapping

Tad Cummins’ wife files for divorce amidst Elizabeth Thomas Amber Alert

Teaching was dream job for kidnapping suspect Tad Cummins

TBI: Elizabeth Thomas, Tad Cummins were spotted in Oklahoma

TBI: Tad Cummins added to 10 most wanted list as search for Columbia teen continues

Videos: The search for Elizabeth Thomas and Tad Cummins

Photos: Amber Alert issued for Elizabeth Thomas

Vanished: Learn more about Tennessee’s missing children

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